Daniele Gatti and the Philharmonia on their Mettle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weber, Beethoven, Schumann: Roberto Cominati (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Daniele Gatti (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.2.2016. (RB)

Weber:  Overture, Oberon
Beethoven:  Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op 37
Schumann:  Symphony No. 2 in C, Op 61

The new Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Daniele Gatti, made a welcome return to the Royal Festival Hall for this concert of German Romantic masterpieces.  Arcadi Volodos, who originally had star billing in the Beethoven Concerto, had to withdraw from the concert at the last moment due to illness so the Italian pianist, Roberto Cominati, stepped into the breach.  Cominati won the Busoni Piano Competition back in 1993 and he has established a career as a soloist in continental Europe, Japan and Australia but I had not come across him before.

The concert opened with the Overture to Weber’s final opera, Oberon, which received its premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 12 April 1826 immediately prior to the composer’s untimely death.   Katy Woolley did a marvellous job evoking the enchanted horn calls of Elfland which open the piece while the Philharmonia’s strings and woodwind enhanced the magical atmosphere.  Gatti seemed to find just the right balance between delicacy and brilliance and the shifts in mood and tempo were handled beautifully.  I was particularly impressed with the precise and clear articulation of the string players and the tight ensemble work.  This was a very impressive start to the concert.

It is a great shame that we did not have an opportunity to hear Volodos in Beethoven’s C Minor Piano Concerto but full marks to Roberto Cominati for giving such a persuasive performance of the work at such short notice.  Gatti and the Philharmonia opened well:  the tempo seemed spot on to me and the composer’s phrasing and dynamic markings were scrupulously observed.  Cominati’s performance was very polished and cultivated and much of the passage-work was executed to perfection.  Occasionally, I would have welcomed more weight and depth of tone and to have heard a wider range of dynamics.  The opening of the slow movement was a little bland for my taste and I wondered if Cominati could have done more to distil the poetic essence of the music.  However, the ensuing dialogue with the orchestra was well handled and the arabesques which he wove round the Philharmonia’s woodwind were exquisite.  Cominati gave us some scintillating playing in the Rondo finale and there was much engaging interplay between piano and orchestra.  I wondered if he might have done more to bring out Beethoven’s subversive wit and humour in the movement.  Cominati displayed some magnificent finger-work in the coda and he and his orchestral partners brought the work to an exhilarating conclusion.  It is not easy to step in to play this concerto at such short notice but Cominati produced an accomplished performance. The audience coaxed him back to the stage for a well deserve encore (Debussy’s Claire de lune).

The concert concluded with Schumann’s Second Symphony which the composer wrote in the mid 1840’s when he was suffering from depression, poor health and tinnitus.  Schumann described the work as representing his struggle against a dark period of illness and depression.  He commented:  “It was resistance of the spirit that was at work here, and helped me to combat my condition”.  Schumann was immersed in Bach’s music at the time of the work’s composition and some sections of the symphony evoke the Baroque composer’s chorale preludes and contrapuntal textures.  There is an argument that the symphony already hints at the composer’s subsequent mental disintegration but I have never subscribed to that view and remain an avid admirer of Schumann’s later compositions.

The trumpet calls which opened the symphony succeeded in capturing the audience’s attention and brass, strings and woodwind collaborated well to produce a rapt Bachian chorale.  The orchestra seemed to lose impetus at the start of the ensuing Allegro non troppo section although Gatti galvanised them and injected energy into Schumann’s turbulent opening theme.  He captured the capriciousness and mercurial shifts in mood well although this was occasionally at the expense of the overarching narrative thread.  The violins did a great job with the scurrying passage-work in the scherzo and I loved the charm and elegance the Philharmonia brought to the Bachian counterpoint in the second of the trios.  The final accelerando and race to the finish line was an electrifying piece of playing.  Gatti brought a refined poetic sensibility to the wonderful slow movement and was helped in no short measure by gorgeous woodwind solos from Christopher Cowie and Mark van der Wiel.  Gatti’s sensitive expressive handling of the material enabled the Philharmonia to move seamlessly from sorrowful elegy to lofty Bachian counterpoint to the swooning high Romanticism of the final section.  The finale had a rich vibrancy and I was impressed with the way Gatti controlled the composer’s interweaving themes.  He summoned an impressive range of textures and sonorities from the Philharmonia and there was some well judged layering of sound.  The coda was an uplifting piece of playing bringing the work to a life affirming conclusion.

Overall, this was first rate playing from Gatti and the Philharmonia and the contributions from the orchestra’s principal woodwind players in particular were superb.

Robert Beattie      

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